Spanning the senior year of high school, the film depicts Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s (Saoirse Ronan) fraught relationships with family members, friends, boyfriends, and her hometown of Sacramento. Deeply frustrated with nearly aspect of her life, she consistently rebels against reality. She applies to colleges she lacks the grades for, pretends to live in houses her family couldn’t possibly afford, and rejects her given name in favor of her invented nickname. All she wants is to leave everything she knows behind and get very far away from Sacramento, or as she disdainfully calls it, “the Midwest of California.”
Lady Bird’s mother serves as the main target of her war on reality. The harsh, demanding matriarch of the McPherson family (a wonderful performance by Laurie Metcalf) is the polar opposite of the vibrant, impetuous Lady Bird. Each of the women desperately wants the other to respect and understand them, but is completely unable to empathize with the opposing viewpoint. Alternately funny, uplifting, and heartbreaking, the tumultuous relationship between the two provides the emotional and narrative core of the film.
The rest of the movie’s 93-minute runtime is packed to the brim with snippets of life at a Catholic high school. The film’s wit and perceptiveness help the familiar narrative beats come off as genuine rather than clichéd. Lady Bird navigates the traditional hazards of leaving adolescence: drama club, prom, disappointing romantic partners, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, etc. However, the script smartly emphasizes the surprisingly complex inner lives of the well-worn archetypes (the straight-laced best friend, the shallow rich girl, the brooding rebel, etc.) that inhabit its version of 2002 Sacramento. As a result, the film always feels true to the characters and the time and place they exist in, regardless of the retread territory of the stories.
Lady Bird herself perfectly embodies the contradictory nature of being a teenager. She’s both significantly wiser and more foolish than anyone gives her credit for and she bounces between charmingly awkward and frustratingly obstinate at the drop of the hat. This complexity is captured endearingly by Saoirse Ronan’s winning, expressive performance, which is the best in her impressive career.
In the film’s most powerful moments, Gerwig uses Lady Bird’s characterization to explore the poignant consequences of the emotional upheaval that accompany growing up. The impatience and anxiety of waiting to go out into the world can hide the true value of people and places until it’s too late. Lady Bird obsesses over the flaws of her family and home, and, as a result, blinds herself to their beauty.